Moses und Aron is a unique title in the repertoire, a rare musical treatise on theology that transcends its Jewish coordinates, crucial as they are to understand the piece, to become a universal tragedy about faith, communication and community. Schoenberg conceived it as an intellectual device to re-enact the dogma of the chosen people and, with this ambitious programme, aimed right at the core of the distinctive artistic mission of opera as a genre: shed light into the shadows of the unspoken and explore in a collective theatrical rite the mysteries of existence. This new co-production between Opéra de Paris and Teatro Real is a major success, a bold affirmation of the boundless power of opera, especially thanks to Romeo Castellucci's work, that takes Moses' symbolic power to a whole new level.

John Graham-Hall (Aron) and Albert Dohmen (Moses)​ © Javier del Real | Teatro Real​
John Graham-Hall (Aron) and Albert Dohmen (Moses)​
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real​

Castellucci's production is an amazing technical feat, visually enticing and full of jaw-dropping effects that leave the audience in awe and constantly wondering how on earth he does it (Castellucci is not only responsible for the stage direction but has also designed the set, costumes and lighting). Conceptually, the production combines a wealth of symbolic elements and lets them develop organically throughout the performance, creating a distinct visual identity that enhances every single word of this complex libretto. It is hard to think of recent opera productions that have reached this level of perfection.

Act I develops under a blinding white light and behind a translucent curtain that blurs the action, the characters being little more than faltering shades in an impossible two-dimensional space. Symbols start to appear creating threads of meaning that develop across the performance: an old sound recorder wasting mute tape, a technological device resembling a space telescope and symbolising Moses' staff, the black matter that blights everything in Act II. After the background wall cracks at the end of the act, revealing a bundle of nude bodies, Act II gives way to a radically different space. The immense stage is left bare and black and the stark lighting underlines contrast and creates a sense of void and vertigo that builds up towards the existential battleground that is to follow.

Flora Gaudín © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
Flora Gaudín
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real

The whole act is constructed upon a powerful paradox. When the Israelites are forsaken by Moses, or so it seems, they quickly forget the inscrutable theological revolution of Act I and desperately resort to fleshy traditional gods. But what should be a sensual explosion turns out to be a dismal descent into darkness. Pitch black paint tarnishes everything, including Aron and the Golden Calf (a 1.5 ton living bull), and threatens to consume the stage itself. Every image is corrupted and every word is meaningless, until Moses comes back from the collapsing mountain and attempts an impossible return to the abstract world of the first act.

Chorus of the Teatro Real © Javier del Real | Teatro Real​
Chorus of the Teatro Real
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real​

Albert Dohmen was a rough, almost violent Moses, whose blind authority could be felt in every line of text, thanks to complete command of the Sprechgesang technique. In the parts where singing prevails over declamation, the Wotan inside him showed still fresh tone, with impressive metallic colour. He is able to strip Moses of every trait of humanity, conveying every line with prophetical shudder.

John Graham Hall (Aron) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real
John Graham Hall (Aron)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real
John Graham-Hall was a superb Aron. Though vocally strained and a bit insecure in the top notes, his phrasing was masterful, introducing nuances in every word with clear diction. He literally owns the character and, in vivid contrast with Moses, develops every possible side of it: the seduction of the proud prophet, the helpless, abandoned brother, and the ashamed false shaman, at the end, almost a caricature before severe Moses.

The team of secondary characters performed at a very good level, but it was the excellence of the chorus that came as a surprise. Moses und Aron is the utmost test for every chorus and the Intermezzo – powerful, idiomatic and completely in style – passed with honours. The orchestra, conducted by Lothar Koenigs, played at a very good level overall, but was maybe a step behind the rest of the team. A bit cautious and always trying to control the sound, at the end of Act I there were some moments when it felt like the orchestra was lagging a bit behind the marked rhythm, struggling with the density and complexity of the score.

At the end of this unforgettable night the audience is left alone with a question that mirrors Moses’ theological defiance: is opera (the ultimate combination of images, words and music) capable of communicating the most intricate ideas? In the last scene, the black curtain falls over Moses and he is trapped in the middle, half black, half white, embodying with his accepted defeat the symbolism of the silent Act III. Maybe he is right and there are things that cannot be explored through words and music. But, hey, we tried.